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07/12/2017

New study explains the psychological power and hard limits of fact-checking journalism

From Vox

During the campaign — and into his presidency — Donald Trump repeatedly exaggerated and distorted crime statistics. “Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed,” he asserted in his dark speech at the Republican National Convention in July 2016. But the data here is unambiguous: FBI statistics show crime has been going down for decades.

CNN’s Jake Tapper confronted Trump’s then-campaign manager, Paul Manafort, right before the speech. “How can the Republicans make the argument that somehow it’s more dangerous today, when the facts don’t back that up?” Tapper asked.

“People don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods,” Manafort responded, and then dismissed the FBI as a credible source of data.

This type of exchange — where a journalist fact-checks a powerful figure — is an essential task of the news media. And for a long time, political scientists and psychologists have wondered: Do these fact checks matter in the minds of viewers, particularly those whose candidate is distorting the truth? Simple question. Not-so-simple answer.

In the past, the research has found that not only do facts fail to sway minds, but they can sometimes produce what’s known as a “backfire effect,” leaving people even more stubborn and sure of their preexisting belief.

But there’s new evidence on this question that’s a bit more hopeful. It finds backfiring is rarer than originally thought — and that fact-checks can make an impression on even the most ardent of Trump supporters.

But there’s still a big problem: Trump supporters know their candidate lies, but that doesn’t change how they feel about him. Which prompts a scary thought: Is this just a Trump phenomenon? Or can any charismatic politician get away with being called out on lies?

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